Destination Disaster: SS City of Benares

City of Benares Courtesy Wikipedia

The City of Benares was to become part of a special program that would carry children away from war torn Britain. Built in 1936 in Glasgow she was a beautiful ship and for children leaving, in some cases, the rubble of their homes, it was sheer luxury. With Nazi forces continually bombarding England, young and old were dying. The Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) was set up to begin transporting children to British regions. Thousands of parent jumped at the chance to get their children to safety. Others held misgivings. In sending their children away, were they showing signs of weakness in the face of the enemy? Previously a ship carrying CORB children had been torpedoed. All of the 321 children had arrived safely on land, but it was food for thought. Putting that away parents could also remember that their children would be ‘convoyed’. In this case the Benares would have a convoy only to a certain extent.

The Benares set sail on Friday, September 13, 1940. Under Captain Landles Nicoll, the ship met it’s convoy (OB213). The HMS Winchelsea would accompany them to Longitude 17 degrees West, before turning back to meet an incoming ship carry vital supplies. Nicoll had his misgivings about the voyage, feeling he would have a better chance of avoiding a submarine if he were on his own. On this trip the Benares’ would be carrying 90 CORB children.

Focke-Wulf Condor Courtesy Wikipedia

There was reason to be worried. A plane, a Focke-Wulf Condor, used to scout out prey for U-boats, had been spotted. Lifeboat drills had become an everyday part of life and CORB children were required to sleep in their lifebelts, a requirement that would be lifted on September 17th. By that time storms were battering the Benares and the HMS Winchelsea had departed from OB213. There would be no warship to watch over the group of vessels.

The U-48 spotted the convoy after the Winchelsea had left, but was waiting for night before attacking. At 10 PM the U-48 struck. The convoy had stopped zigzagging due to bad weather and fears of colliding with each other. Under Heinrich Bleichrodt two torpedoes were fired from the U-48 but missed the Benares. Another quickly followed hitting it’s target under the children’s quarters near the stern. The children were sleeping at the time of the attack. Furniture fell over, pipes ruptured, top bunks fell on sleeping occupants in the bottom bunks, wreckage blocked corridors. The children were level headed though. A small group of boys made their way out into the corridor and helped one the escorts out, Catholic priest Rory O’Sullivan. Some realized it was a torpedo others thought it was a drill. Nevertheless they all headed up on deck and arrived at their lifeboat stations. It was reported that one boy had been killed and there were others seriously injured. The non-CORB passengers didn’t experience as much damage.

Captain Nicoll and other officers were grimly considering how long the Benares could hold out. The engine room was filling up fast and an SOS was sent out very soon after the attack. Calm and orderliness reigned among the passengers and the fact that a nearby convoy would be on hand to save them may have helped. But that would not be the case. A U-boat would most definitely sink a ship that tried to rescue the survivors. The HMS Hurricane would be the rescue ship and it was still some distance off. The U-48 had also sunk the Marina, a ship in the convoy.

Chief Officer Joe Hetherington helped to look for missing CORB children as did a very worried escort, Mary Cornish. As a result of her search Cornish missed her lifeboat and was directed by Hetherington to Lifeboat 12, a boat that would soon have a miraculous history in the days to follow. She was the only woman aboard and would act as escort to 6 CORB boys aboard Lifeboat 12. While everything was indeed calm and orderly, what would prove tiresome was the lowering of the lifeboats. The storm and the waves weren’t making things easy. Much of the boats tipped over when their falls jammed. Adults and children spilled out from the boats, many times to be washed away by the waves. The boats were thrown against the hull of the ship and others filled up as waves crashed over them. Strangely, enough many of the non-CORB passengers were still in the lounge awaiting orders from an officer. The purser, John Anderson, alerted the surprised 2nd officer who told them to get to the boats.

When all passengers had been loaded or prepared to be put on the Benares’ rafts Nicoll gave the order for his men to abandon ship. He would remain behind to go down with his ship. At 10:34 PM the City of Benares sunk beneath the waves.

On the ocean, lifeboat occupants tried to rescue children from the sea, some losing their lives in the process. A boy, Jack Keely, was one of the fortunate to be rescued. In the wake of the sinking ship Lifeboat 5 capsized. Survivors clung to the keel, but as the night progressed they would drop off one by one until only three remained. Lifeboats that didn’t capsize were quickly becoming waterlogged. Throughout the night across the small expanse of the Atlantic many boats lost half of their occupants to death. A few other individuals had gone insane. Hetherington had managed to make it aboard a raft and pulled Anderson aboard. They later rescued an ungrateful German lady. With morning came hail.

English: British destroyer HMS Hurricane (H06)...

HMS Hurricane Courtesy Wikipedia

At 1:30 PM the HMS Hurricane spotted one of the Marina’s lifeboats which had picked up some Benares survivors.  A whaler was dispatched and began looking among the lifeboats bobbing on the water. It was disheartening. Some boats contained only the dead. For many the loss of so many children was sickening and heartrending. One sailor became sick while looking among the dead.

By the end of the day, 118 survivors had been rescued by the Hurricane. Families ran about the Hurricane‘s decks searching for loved ones, sometimes successful other times not. Three children survivors died aboard the Hurricane. For the most part the children recovered more quickly than the adults and were soon scouring the ship. On the 20th the Hurricane arrived in Scotland. It was there they learned they had miscounted the boats. Lifeboat 12, was drifting somewhere on the Atlantic. But here was little hope that they had survived and were counted as a loss. Little did they know.

Due to the enormity of this story a post on Lifeboat 12’s survivors will appear tomorrow.

Source: Nagorski, Tom. Miracles on the Water : The Heroic Survivors of a World War II U-Boat Attack

18 thoughts on “Destination Disaster: SS City of Benares

    • Yes, I think some of them had health and mental related problems well into adulthood. They behaved admirably though. The author of Miracles on the Water had a relative who was aboard Lifeboat 12, but he was an adult. It is sad that so many, children and adults, made it to the boats only to die later. Thanks for your comment.


  1. This is a fascinatingly detailed account and fits well with a trip I made to the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago last month where I viewed the exhibit with the U-505 German submarine that was captured.


    • No, I guess not. Bleichrodt claimed he didn’t know there were children aboard when he torpedoed the Benares. But I wonder, even if he did know, would he have spared the ship? He was after all awarded for all the ships he sunk.

      But children or not, I wouldn’t have wanted to have been in the shoes of those who killed many innocent people.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!


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